Funeral Mass for developmentally disabled daughter

Q: We are the parents of a 51-year-old daughter who has been profoundly handicapped since birth. We are life-long, baptized Catholics, as are our daughter and her brothers. We are currently making end-of-life plans (buying cemetery plots, etc.) and are wondering what funeral arrangements we should make for our daughter.

She has not received any sacraments since baptism, is not able to attend Mass on a regular basis and, of course, has not received the Eucharist. Should there be a funeral Mass and/or a burial service for her, conducted by a Catholic priest? (If so, it would be attended only by family members and not open to the public. She has lived outside the home, in a special facility in another city, since she was 16.) She will be buried with us in our family plot. (Des Moines, Iowa)

A: First, I commend you for your thoughtfulness for making end-of-life arrangements in advance. Besides assuring that things happen as you want them, this takes a great burden off your family, who might otherwise be left to make difficult decisions with little time to reflect.

As for your daughter's funeral rites, it would certainly be proper for her to have a Mass in church as well as prayers by a priest at her burial site, and that is what I would recommend. I suppose that one could make the argument that since mourners gather at a Mass so that they can pray for the deceased and since your daughter may well have been incapable of personal sin, religious ceremonies at her death might be unnecessary.

But I would challenge that argument on two counts. First, since the link between disability and moral responsibility is highly individualized and uncertain, I would think it better to "play it safe" and pray for your daughter nonetheless. Second, since the Eucharist is our central act of faith, marking the fact that God has redeemed us in Jesus, a funeral Mass would celebrate your daughter's being called home to the joys of heaven.

Parenthetically, you mentioned that your daughter, owing to her profound condition, has never received holy Communion. I, of course, do not know your daughter, and I trust that you have consulted with a priest in this regard. True, the Code of Canon Law does require (No. 914) the use of reason as a prerequisite for the reception of Communion. But, particularly in the case of developmental disability, that requirement is interpreted liberally.

In 1995, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a document entitled "Guidelines for the Celebration of the Sacraments with Persons with Disabilities." In it, they note (in No. 20) that all that is required is that "the person be able to distinguish the body of Christ from ordinary food, even if this recognition is evidenced through manner, gesture or reverential silence rather than verbally," and they further note that "cases of doubt should be resolved in favor of the right of the baptized person to receive the sacrament."

In our parish there is young man, severely disabled developmentally, who regularly receives Communion at Sunday Mass. His parents lead him up the aisle by the hand; he is often distracted until he arrives right in front of me, but then he looks at me, opens his mouth and smiles broadly when I have given him the host. His parents, I know, have explained to him that God is blessing him with this special food, and I take his smile to indicate his gratitude.

Just one further thought. Your question reminded me of an incident in the life of the French President Charles de Gaulle. He and his wife had a daughter who was born developmentally disabled. They treated her with special tenderness, and even in wartime de Gaulle would find the time to sit her on his knee and tell her stories that made her laugh.

The girl was in her early 20s when she died. De Gaulle led his weeping wife from the gravesite and, with his arm around her, comforted her with these words, "Now, she's like the others."

You may find it consoling, exciting even, to imagine what your own daughter will be like when you meet her one day in the kingdom of God's glory.

Questions may be sent to Father Kenneth Doyle at askfatherdoyle@gmail.com and 40 Hopewell St., Albany, NY 12208.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2013